Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Top Ten SRPGs: Part Threeve

at 4:12 PM
Wait, Earthbound isn't a Strategy RPG, that reference makes no sense. Can't change it now. Must... move... forward... to talk about a few unique occupants of the genre.

7. Gladius
Here's obscure for ya. A non-Star Wars LucasArts game from the middle of the Gamecube's life-cycle that I've never heard mentioned even once by another player. Did anyone out there play this game?

The game's advertisement is immediately misleading - it's not really a game about gladiators. Well, it's a game about tough guys who fight to the (kinda) death in a ring, but it's not historically set. The first (or second) quarter of the game takes place in an ancient-Rome analogue, but it turns out that this Roman nation sits directly next to Dark Ages Scandanavia, ancient Egypt, and the Asian steppes. These worlds are populated both by their traditional warrior classes and mythological beasts. This gives a memorable best-of-mythology feel to the setting where you'll see secutors duking it out with giant scorpions, mummies, and bearskin-adorned barbarians.

The game utilizes a combination of group tactics, rock-paper-scissors, and timed/metered critical hits along with a streamlined command system (where you can skip through movement turns directly to actions) to create generally fluid and fast battles that feel less disjointed than in other strategy titles. Some games go full-on board game and use turn breaks as an escape from realism, but Gladius (and as we're about to discuss, XCOM) feels like it could play out in real-time if you stopped the pauses for commands. This draws the player closer to the battle, making each decision feel more immediate and weighty.

8. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
A game I've of course much discussed recently, I debated for a while whether Enemy Unknown is really an RPG. I'm not gonna go through my entire justification here; the main role-playing principle which is indeed a central element of the game is your relationship to characters. They may not speak except for zingy one-liners and have no relation to the plot, but they provide a medium for the player to express himself uniquely. I doubt anyone could get through Enemy Unknown without feeling like they've been in the trenches with their squaddies, feeling every alien kill and human death in congruence with their collective avatar. This projected emotion is executed better than XCOM far better than many by-the-books RPGs, so it's clearly more deserving of the label.
The game feels almost like it needs to be labeled 'action' as well, but in reality there are no coordination-based efforts. XCOM's pacing is nerve-racking, between the fog of war obscuring anything outside the soldiers' fields of view, the permanent character deaths, and the immediacy with which friend can become foe. Even with its futuristic setting and extraterrestrial threat, the game displays the emotional depth of a true war narrative. The "terror missions" in particular evoke images of 21st century urban unrest and its consequences.

9. Knights in the Nightmare
Admittedly, I feel like it's almost an insult to include this game here, since it so completely defies the conventions of genre as recently discussed. Knights in the Nightmare (and many of St!ng's other games) picks and chooses what appear to be a few familiar ideas and mixes them so wildly that it's no longer recognizable as any remotely familiar formula.

KITN (I read it as "kitten") is SO weird. It's a game about ghosts. Each battle has you reliving the final moments of a new set of knights lives, as you are gradually worked into the immediately-post-apocalypse story. You play as the cursor (wha?) as it silently revives these tragic dying memories. Honestly it's all a bit beyond my capacity to describe. The story is a Germanic tragedy, one which in this presentation seems to say... nothing matters and all life is doomed? K, so we listen to death metal all of a sudden?
Don't try too hard to understand the gameplay from video. Just go try the DS version yourself.
Thus rooted in insanity, it's no surprise the gameplay should be so far off the rails. As you piece together your lost memories and one-by-one raise an army of dead knights, you'll be trying to construct logic out of a similarly disparate hodgepodge of systems that remind of this jigsaw approach to the whole. KITN is a narrative in which time does not necessarily pass linearly, but rather contracts toward a point. It is a game about taking small parts and embracing them without understanding (but eventually experiencing) what makes the sum work so well together.

How can you top the bizarre masterwork of KITN? Well I'd say you'd not only have to go off the genre rails, but you'd have to do it with like a goddamn Shakespeare of a plot. Which game is it? Come on, anyone who's reading this has to know by now.

Oh, sorry, not to blue-balls ya. Here:

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